It’s “John Wick meets Vampires” in Netflix’s latest action piece Day Shift, or at least that’s how director J.J. Perry first pitched the idea to action maestro Chad Stahelski and his 87eleven Entertainment Production Company studio. Day Shift has stood out from the endless lineup of streaming originals ever since its first reveal, having much to do with movie star Jamie Foxx and music icon Snoop Dogg both starring as urban Vampire Hunters, but also hugely thanks to the visceral and kinetic action on display. Such quality is to be expected when the mind behind the John Wick series, one of today’s greatest action sagas, is involved – although maybe not in the way you would expect.
Day Shift marks yet another stepping stone for Chad Stahelski, the stuntman extraordinaire turned director is now taking on more of a mentor-like role behind the scenes as a leading producer. He’s looking to uplift more voices like J.J. Perry, who makes his directorial debut with Day Shift after decades of also working in the stunt field, and we managed to find out just what kind of a producer Stahelski really is in an exclusive interview.
A Pair of Stuntmen Turned Directors
J.J. Perry and Chad Stahelski go years back, first knowing each other as stuntmen in their early Hollywood days to eventually coming together again to choreograph Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 2. Perry served as the stunt coordinator on the sequel, yet his resume goes far beyond that and is growing to this day. Whether it be as a stunt coordinator or second unit director, Perry’s resume features huge titles like Warrior, F9: The Fast Saga, and even DC’s upcoming Blue Beetle. Though as Chad Stahelski simplifies, “Just because you’re a stunt guy doesn’t make you a good director, and just because you’re a second unit guy doesn’t make you a good first unit director either.” Even if Perry had already proved to be good at both, Stahelski sees directing as more having to do with leadership and communication, “How to unite 400 other people who are probably more crazier than you to get your own vision across,” as he tells us. Luckily, J.J. Perry had Chad Stahelski sold on his leadership skills and confidence in Day Shift from his very first pitch.
The conversation that first started out as “John Wick meets Vampires” quickly turned into something much more viable. Stahelski recalls, “He came it from all the right angles, how it was going to be more of his vision and where he was going to spin things to give it a different kind of vibe than just a carbon copy of John Wick with Vampires.” Stahelski labels that confidence as “how you really figure out if somebody’s got the chops or not” when it comes to directing. It was during this initial half-hour conversation that Stahelski knew Perry wasn’t approaching him for some kind of “bro deal” to get the movie made, the only thing that came next was double checking if Perry was mentally ready to take the leap into the director’s chair in what Stahelski refers to as “the talk.” Having already made that jump with fellow filmmaker David Leitch, who just celebrated the box office success of Bullet Train, the John Wick director had a lot to get off his chest from the get-go, to say the least.
“Look, it’s probably not going to be 100% what you think… I wish it was more about the camera and filmmaking, but it’s more about politics, budgeting, and scheduling,” Stahelski told Perry. “When you’re on set, it’ll be the happiest time in your life but it’ll also be the most stressful. And then [post-production] moves at a snail’s pace, are you ready for 50,000 people to give you notes every day about what music you should use, or people you’ve never even met sending you emails about how to make the movie?” The truth is that no one is ever ready to take that kind of plunge, but you only get better at directing by actually doing it and talking about it says Stahelski. With all their years of friendship and working together behind them, Stahelski never actually lacked any faith in Perry, it was merely a matter of finding out, “How do we guide him through the rough parts, and how do we accentuate the good parts?” Aside from the John Wick franchise, Stahelski only had an Executive Producer credit on Bruised, which he helped get off the ground with actor-turned-director Halle Berry. So for him, there was just as much to learn on Day Shift as a producer hands-on.
The Learning Producer
If there was one thing Chad Stahelski wasn’t trying to be as a producer on Day Shift, it was overbearing. There was enough trust that J.J. Perry would have everything under control on set given his years of experience, and Stahelski didn’t want to cross that line given their personal history. “You don’t want another director standing over your shoulder, even if you’re buddies, because you don’t want the stress,” Stahelski explains. Just speaking from his own experiences and workflow, Stahelski says that “I would hate to have someone standing on my shoulder, whether they are competent or fully confident, I would feel limited in my decision making.” Although he wasn’t spending hours on set, that doesn’t mean he didn’t get his hands dirty at some point in the filmmaking process. In fact, his voice was more crucial in the areas where J.J. Perry had less first-hand knowledge – similar to when Stahelski himself made the jump to directing with the first John Wick.
As a producer, Chad Stahelski was a strong advocate of story and creative liberty above all else. “I talked to J.J. literally every day of development through the script, casting, crewing up – I think I’m very effective helping there,” Stahelski claims. To have a seasoned professional at your side before the shoot is incredibly helpful, but it’s even harder to describe just how invaluable such a helping hand can be after the shoot in post. When putting an emphasis on allowing his director freedom in the editing room, Stahelski states, “Initially, you try to be respectful of the Director’s Cut in the first 10 to 12 weeks and then after that, jump in and start helping.”
Post-production can be a trivial time, especially for someone like J.J. Perry, or even Stahelski himself when he first started directing, since second unit and stunt crew aren’t normally involved at that level. So with Day Shift being the two’s first time in post as director and producer together, there was a tricky balance to maintain. “You want to give him enough margin to make mistakes and try and learn his own process while, at the same time, be there in case he needs advice or a little guidance,” Stahelski says. “It’s like every parenting position, you have to let them learn so they can really discover their own creative process without choking the life out of them.”
Chad Stahelski is taking none of his contribution to Day Shift for granted, whether it be a small note he gave in post or more complicated words of wisdom he had to pass on to J.J. Perry. “I’m a very new producer… I’m still learning,” he was quick to admit. Believe it or not, the biggest lesson he had to learn on such a hefty action project was when to hold himself back. After all, his goal was to mainly elevate a fellow stuntman turned director. “I have a director’s head on when I produce and a producer’s head on when I direct, so I have to temper my own notes in a certain way to be effective,” Stahelski confesses. “You try to get better with every gig, and with every gig you have different personalities – each one’s a fresh experience.”
Bullets and Fangs
Getting into the fine details of Day Shift, just how different it really is from any other action comedy or genre piece currently available to stream, Chad Stahelski claims that “it all starts with tone.” The film sees Jamie Foxx as Bud Jablonski, a renegade urban Vampire Hunter who earns his keep by pawning blood-sucking fangs on the underground market. When things in his family life go south, he has no choice but to re-enter the Los Angeles Vampire Hunting Union to earn more money and prove his worth to his ex-lover and their daughter. With the help of fellow esteemed hunter Big John (Snoop Dogg) and union rep Seth (Dave Franco), Jablonski aims to cash in the score of a lifetime when an ancient society of vamps reveal themselves in the Valley. Big game equals big money, for the older the fangs the more they sell for on the market.
To Chad Stahelski, this concept could have gone many ways. “I could have done Interview with the Vampire meets John Wick, I could have also done Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets John Wick,” he says. Stahelski, aside from the John Wick series, has a history of assisting major productions in second unit work, and he claims most of this is due to muddled tone. “As a second unit, we go to do these fix-it jobs or have to reshoot movies for other people, 9 out of 10 times it was fixing tone.” So when it comes to his own projects, tone is something that has to be solidified from the very beginning. “You watch the John Wick films, we’re very aware of that. Keanu [Reeves] is playing it like reality, he has no idea it’s a movie – he’s playing it like it’s real life, but then Ian McShane is playing it like a Shakespearean play,” he explains. Stahelski noted that all of his mentors were very big on tone, thus he tackled Day Shift with that same mentality.
The biggest question to raise across all creative departments, from production design to even stunts, according to Stahelski is what are we doing here? And J.J. Perry’s answer to that number one question was “not a self-important, social commentary on pick a topic for vampires.” Perry himself has referenced Evil Dead and Fright Night as main inspirations for Day Shift, that kind of film that features “some kooky shit” as Stahelski likes to say. “This film is executed with a comedic sensibility. It’s meant to be fun, it’s meant to be pure entertainment.” Entertainment can mean a lot of things in the streaming age, but Day Shift is trying to say, “Hey, get off your ass and laugh with us” Stahelski assures. However, that sense of humor is meant to be chased by out-of-this-world action. “You’ll also see some things like, ‘Jesus, that was cool,’ which is probably the hardest thing for a first-time director to do. So you have to give J.J. a lot of credit for holding that tone all the way through.”
Action in the Streaming Age
Day Shift may have all the makings of a top-notch genre piece, but you still have to take into consideration its place in the larger streaming landscape. It’s now widely accepted that there are so many deserving stories in streaming that never get their proper time to shine simply because the word doesn’t get out. Despite Chad Stahelski being somewhat new to this side of Hollywood, having found most of his success on the big screen, he still had a lot to say when asked about streaming and getting as many eyes on Day Shift as possible.
He starts with, “People may watch it, whether you like it or not, because they’re fucking bored or they want to escape.” Streaming success is often based on strong or unique marketing campaigns, but Stahelski wants the film to speak more for itself. “You’re essentially trying to hook people, right? But if you’re always coming at it from a hook, you’re less concerned about being creative than you are about marketing… and that’s a good strategy because you have a business to run, yet I think that kills the creative process in a certain way.” Stahelski expands on this point; “I’m not saying you can get rid of it. I’m just saying we [at 87eleven] don’t think like that.”
When it comes to his own stories, Stahelski simply proclaims, “It’s like I see fucking weird shit in my head and I fight like a motherfucker to get it on screen – I argue, I yell, I pout, I do whatever it takes to get my vision across.” This filmmaker isn’t so much preoccupied with the modern logistics and politics of getting great stories made, the ideas in his head always come first no matter what. “Rather than worry about metadata, what people are watching, and what marketing hands me about how much Keanu Reeves gets in foreign sales, I just write a bunch of weird shit on paper and get a lot of people to prove that I can execute it,” Stahelski says. “When you see a John Wick film, it is at least 99.5% me, there’s no marketing team saying ‘well, you have to do this and that.’ I just do my thing and if people like it, there’s a true north for me.” This very same attitude could be seen with J.J. Perry and his approach to making Day Shift his first full-fledged feature.
When streaming Day Shift on Netflix, Stahelski states that “we’re watching what J.J. likes… so if you like it, you’re seeing a part of J.J. and it’s honest.” For those that don’t like it as much, Stahelski would counter your opinion with, “J.J. knows his taste is a little off center (laughs), so what would you do in the next one?” And this isn’t meant as some kind of backhanded remark, Stahelski is genuinely curious about what you, as a paying Netflix subscriber, would want to see – not what would make for an easier sell. As he says, “I think that’s all you can really ask. We’re just trying to direct shit that we think we would love to see as fans, so if you love it too, then we’re in sync.” How strongly Netflix’s audiences respond to Day Shift remains to be seen, however, Chad Stahelski and J.J. Perry already have multiple scenarios in mind.
87eleven Action Design has been booming in these last few years since the global success of the John Wick saga. The company, best known for providing Hollywood with some of the most refined stunt services today, has got a lot more on its plate with Chad Stahelski taking up a slew of projects, including a live-action adaptation of Ghost of Tsushima and a new retelling of Highlander starring Henry Cavill. 87eleven often coincides with 87North Productions, which is currently run by David Leitch and producing partner Kelly McCormick. Chad Stahelski doesn’t see much of a difference between working on original projects like Day Shift vs. more recognized IPs like Ghost of Tsushima, as the creative drive is always “first and foremost.” But that doesn’t mean that Stahelski totally discards franchise potential, as he tells us that he currently has three ideas for possible Day Shift sequels with “two on paper already ready to fucking go.”
Should the Jamie Foxx-led action piece perform well enough on Netflix, Chad Stahelski is certain that he and J.J. Perry “can get better” and further build upon this original idea with more blood, sweat, and tears. Regardless of what may come out of Day Shift, Chad Stahelski makes clear that producing sequels for the sake of money is never on the 87eleven agenda – these action-driven projects always come from a deep source of love and understanding. While getting this point across, Stahelski gave us a rundown of what’s currently on his slate, both as a producer and director. “I love kaiju, so we’re working on a project called Nemesis based on a book series. I love dueling and fencing, so we’re working on the Greatcoats book series. I love samurai, fascinated by history but I also love Kurosawa so that’s what we’re working on Ghost of Tsushima… we actively pursue these things because of interest.”
Out of all these projects, one of the most precious that hits close to home is Shibumi, the famed 1979 novel of a westerner raised in Japan who goes on to face a global threat as an elite assassin. “We’re actively working with Warner Brothers on the book Shibumi, which has been in my life since I was 12… I can already see that in my head,” Stahelski states with eagerness. As he just hinted with Collider, his long-awaited Highlander reboot may be coming next on his busy agenda, aside from John Wick 5 which is confirmed to still be in the works despite being original delayed by Covid. Whichever of these exciting projects sees fruition next, no one is making thrilling cinema in the mindset that Chad Stahelski has. And that’s not an overstatement, the work speaks for itself.